SALEM – The Peabody Essex Museum hasn’t seemed this cool for 200 years.
On Thursday night, artist Nick Cave and electronic musician Kooky Scientist lighted up the museum’s atrium with wearable art, goofy dancing, and pulsating beats.
This wasn’t exactly a wild rave, as little kids and their parents joined Cave’s costumed dancers in their twirling and swaying. But the latest event in the museum’s “PEM/PM” series, called “Free Form,” seemed as novel to some in attendance as the art and other curiosities from distant shores must have seemed to residents a couple of centuries ago, back when this was the East India Marine Society.
The exhibit “Freeport [No. 006]: Nick Cave” is on view upstairs at the Peabody Essex through May 27, displaying two videos and three of Cave’s ornate “Soundsuits,” one festooned with ceramic birds and bric-a-brac, the others covered with buttons and handbags.
Cave, a professor of fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, began work on the Soundsuits in the 1990s after the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots that followed. He made a suit of sticks picked up from the ground — using materials disregarded and overlooked, making a metaphorical connection to black men like King and himself. The suit made noise when he moved, and that inspired him. Many more suits followed, made of sisal and beads, masks and feathers, obscuring gender, race, class, and other markers of identity.
The choreographed movements draw from Alvin Ailey (with whom Cave trained as a dancer), tribal ceremony, and more. In the Salem exhibit, they are best seen in the 2010 video, “Drive-by,” projected on the museum’s big screen, featuring dancing, kaleidoscopic digital effects, and acid house music.
Kooky Scientist is also known as Salem resident Fred Giannelli. When he came to see the exhibit after its March opening, he didn’t even know his music had been used for “Clowning,” another video in the exhibit. The conversations with Cave that followed his surprise discovery led to Thursday’s live collaboration, where more than a half-dozen local performers donned Soundsuits, some of them shaggy with long, brightly colored fibers of synthetic raffia. One had a stop sign on its back.
“They look like Cousin It,” said one “Addams Family” fan in the food line.
The performers danced en masse with grinning members of the public, their movements improvised and fluid. On the small atrium stage, Kooky Scientist worked his laptop. The suited dancers fanned out through the museum, scampering up stairs and across bridges. At one point, three of them entered the crowded gallery where the video was showing and offered a live counterpoint to the dancing on screen.
The museum said more than 800 people turned out for the event, which was free but raised $3,737 in donations for One Fund Boston for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. The crowd observed a moment of silence as well.
This was a happening, a communal celebration, and just what many people seemed to need at what was, unfortunately, not nearly the end of a tough week for the Boston area.
Joel Brown can be reached at